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The deadly dilemma of Libya's missing weapons

Human Rights Watch discovered several weapons-storage sites in Libya where surface-to-air missiles are missing, raising concerns that the weapons could arm an Iraq-style insurgency.

By Staff writer / September 7, 2011

Large mortar shells sit unguarded, and boxes that once held anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weapons are strewn about arms depots around Tripoli on Sept. 7.

Ben Hubbard/AP

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Tripoli, Libya

As Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) hunt for and collect the weapons that fueled Muammar Qaddafi's war machine, they are quickly learning that some choice pieces of his vast stockpile of mines, mortars, and explosives are missing.

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At newly discovered weapons-storage sites, thousands of shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are unaccounted for. At one unguarded facility, empty packing crates and documents reveal that 482 sophisticated Russian SA-24 missiles were shipped to Libya in 2004, and now are gone. With a range of 11,000 feet, the SA-24 is Moscow’s modern version of the American “stinger,” which in the 1980s helped the US-backed Afghan mujahideen turn their war against the Soviet Union.

With Libya already facing great uncertainty in the post-Qaddafi era, seepage from unsecured weapons stores could further threaten its nascent revolutionary government by arming a loyalist insurgency – or providing regional rebel groups and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb with a lethal arsenal.

“If these weapons fall in the wrong hands, all of North Africa will be a no-fly zone,” says Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who has brought a number of weapons-storage sites to the NTC's attention.

“That’s the Western concern,” Mr. Bouckaert tells journalists at the site, noting the interest of Al Qaeda affiliates and regional insurgents in being able to easily target aircraft. “But what poses the biggest danger to Libyan people – as we know from Iraq – is what’s laying right behind you ... all of these tank shells and mortars, because that’s what people turn into car bombs.”

Libya's vast weapons cache

HRW played a similar role in Iraq, where it identified unprotected weapons sites to US forces on the ground. Many of those arsenals were never protected, and provided the firepower for years of insurgency.

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